Studios seeing the dollars and sense in preservation

Many indie films still gathering dust

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Much is made of the need to preserve old films for art's sake. Funds are raised, grants given out to ensure that even cinematic historical footnotes like the 1945 Fox melodrama "Leave Her to Heaven" are given as much care and attention as, say, the Mona Lisa. But in the end, the real reason more and more movies are being preserved these days is about economics. After decades of letting films decay, the industry has seen the light, which came -- as many Hollywood epiphanies do -- in the form of flashing dollar signs.

Credit Blu-Ray Disc, its antecedent DVD and high-definition television. The proliferation of such technology has educated the consumer, creating a demand for high-quality images and audio, and has given studios an ideal economic motive for keeping their libraries in top condition. And once most consumers become accustomed to crisp visuals and booming audio, nothing less will do.

Michael Pogorzelski, director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Academy Film Archive, points back to the jump from VHS to DVD as film preservation's turning point. "The picture quality and audio quality went up so astronomically compared to VHS, everyone at the studios said, 'We've got to make sure that all the films look and sound as good as they can, and the only way to do that is to go back to the original elements.' And that's when you saw them seeing a real economic incentive to get their libraries in shipshape."

Now, some 11 years after the DVD was launched, film preservation (and often restoration) is routine at Hollywood studios. Today, studios typically store multiple copies of films in climate-controlled vaults in geographically diverse locations. Primary materials (including 35mm black-and-white YCM separation masters, the original negative and archival elements related to both the image and the audio) are stored in one facility, while three duplicates are stored in others hundreds of miles apart. In the event that an individual copy is corrupted or an entire facility is destroyed, the library remains intact.

Such attention to detail is even more crucial in a Blu-Ray/hi-def world. "Five years ago, when we would master a film in high definition, we would down-convert to standard definition for DVD," says Grover Crisp, vp asset management and film restoration for Sony. "That down-conversion process served to camouflage a lot of issues that were present in the HD master. Basically, because no one was seeing the HD master, we didn't really have to deal with it. Now we do."

It's a far cry from a few decades ago, when prints and original negatives were neglected or lost, improperly stored, transferred to inferior stocks -- and sometimes willfully destroyed. The problem came to light in the 1970s, when filmmakers spoke out and the Library of Congress and institutions like the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the George Eastman House stepped up efforts to save and restore films. Studios were, by and large, slow to act, if they did anything at all.

Today there are whole divisions devoted to the preservation and restoration process. As a rule, studios now give state-of-the-art preservation treatments to every new project, while simultaneously working through older titles in the library as time and resources will allow. Historically significant titles likely to generate profits on home video and other ancillary markets get looked at first and more thoroughly. Priority is also given to titles that are in bad physical shape or stored on historically unstable material, such as the highly explosive pre-1948 nitrate film stocks or post-1948 safety film stocks prone to fading and decay.

"Part of our saving grace is the condition that we've been storing stuff in over the years has been at a critical enough degree that our decomposition and everything that could potentially happen is at a lower rate," observes Bob O'Neil, vp image assets and preservation for the Universal Operations Group, which oversees the NBC Universal library of 5,000 feature-length titles and 47,000 television episodes.

Nevertheless, says O'Neil, the last high-profile restoration he can recall was the 1998 polish of the 1958 film noir classic "Touch of Evil."

But Sony's Crisp says that recent advances in digital-restoration technology are inspiring his studio to go back and revisit major titles a second or third time, such as 1969's "Easy Rider," which was previously restored in the mid-1990s using both photochemical and digital techniques. "There were serious limitations back then in terms of what we could do digitally, and because of the cost involved, it really wasn't done very often," Crisp says. "Now, we can do the entire film for a whole lot less than we did just short pieces 10 or 12 years ago."

In spite of these advances, many independent films fall through the cracks. Archivists often discover that the best surviving copy of an indie title has been stored in a garage or a closet or entrusted to a lab that has gone out of business. The situation is even more precarious for the indie projects that are "born digital" and never transferred to film.

The issue of long-term digital storage is also a big concern to the major studios, which put most of their films through a digital intermediate process that renders the final image in a data file that is then transferred to celluloid for theatrical distribution. There are various groups looking into the problem, such as the Academy's Sci-Tech Council and the industry-standards body SMPTE, but at present, the processes for dealing with digital data are unique to each facility, and no consensus as to a solution has been reached.

Maintenance of digital material means it has to be recopied nearly every 18 months in the latest format, says Robert Rosen, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, who served as founding director of the university's archives from 1975-99. He adds that commercial labs are not up to the challenge, so "you're on your own."

In the meantime, the Library of Congress has opened its new National Audio-Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) in Culpepper, Va., which has automated systems that are capable of transferring hundreds of thousands of hours of moving images and recorded sounds from their deteriorating analog sources to digital files that will be refreshed perpetually and migrated to new media over time.

"I think we're going to see studios and other content creators do this as well -- not just for archiving and safekeeping initial production, but for the long-term storage of finished work," says Gregory Lukow, chief of the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcast and Recorded Sound Division and director of NAVCC.

For the moment, film remains the archival medium of choice. With proper storage, it should last 100 years or more, compared to digital data tape, which has an expected life span of seven to 10 years. But with the increasing number of major Hollywood films being shot digitally, the push to retrofit multiplexes with digital projection systems, and the growing popularity of viewing media on personal computers and handheld devices, one has to wonder if the idea of preserving moving images on film may soon be an archaic concept.

"A thousand years from now, there will be a temple and on its altar will be a piece of 35mm film," Rosen muses. "They're going to say, 'Way back then, everything was shot on that and was shown on that and was preserved on that.' And people will 'ooh' and 'ah' and say, 'That's not possible.'"
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